How to Cope When Nothing is ‘Normal’

How to Cope When Nothing is ‘Normal’

To say we are living through extraordinary times, would be an understatement amid this COVID-19 pandemic. Normal life feels like a thing of the past. We are all trying our best as individuals, families, communities and nations to navigate our way through this pandemic. Life has taken on an abnormal tinge as we negotiate a new way of existing alongside a dangerous virus. So, how can we find ways to cope with this new normal? 

As a serial expat, I have learned some helpful tools for coping when nothing is normal. When you settle into life in a new culture, you willingly step into a new normal. Your previous idea of normal doesn’t exist in this new place. The language is foreign, the food may be unfamiliar, and there are cultural differences that can make daily interactions morph into weird and awkward moments without warning. Everyday activities such as grocery shopping, paying bills and riding a bus take on unfamiliar shades when we are first negotiating our way in a foreign country. There are a lot of similarities between moving to a new country and living through this pandemic. The sudden shut-downs restrictions and changes to daily life can feel like we are living in a foreign nation. In this post I wanted to share some of the ways I learned to cope when nothing seems normal anymore. 


When arriving in a new country, the path of least resistance requires a level of acceptance about the way things are done there. Likewise, in the new normal that is life with COVID-19, find ourselves in unfamiliar times. We are not sure when schools, workplaces or travel will go back to normal operations. We don’t know when we will be able to drop the social distancing rule or go to the supermarket as we used to. 

Acceptance means understanding that we don’t need to know every detail of how or when this will end. Acceptance is learning to sit with uncertainty. It can help to remind yourself of times when you were in places that were different from your idea of normal. Pre-travel ban we would embrace new and different experiences as part of the adventure when we travelled to other nations. Likewise, by accepting that this pandemic will change many things, we can reduce our resistance and learn to live with these changes. Which brings me to strategy number two; adaption 


Operating in a new-normal gradually feels less strange. After moving to Japan, it was not long before I found myself automatically bowing instead of shaking hands in greeting. What started as an awkward imitation to fit in, became second nature the longer I lived there. In the same way, these new ways of working, shopping and interacting will became more normal for us. Relax and go with it. Yes, you will feel frustration at times, awkward at others, but that is all part of the process of getting used to this. 


When faced with an unwanted upheaval in our lives, the strategy of reframing can help immensely. When we move to a new country, there is a sense of adventure that leads us to explore and learn about our new country. We relish the chance to discover unexpected tastes, sights and experiences in our new place of residence. In the same way, we can see this time as an opportunity to discover new joys in a unique situation. We have more time now that life moves to a slower rhythm. Perhaps this is the time to finally learn how to cook like your grandmother or write that book you have always wanted to. For this short time, we get to jump off the merry-go-round of our overly busy lives. We can work at a more leisurely pace in our own homes. We can spend more time taking care of ourselves and our families. This time is a golden opportunity to start projects we have always wanted to do but never had the time. Reframe this imposed slow-down as a gift of time and space, and use it. 


Finally, remember to breathe and to do your best to remain calm in these trying times. Taking a breath gives you a moment to control your reactions. It slows down the urge to become angry or annoyed in situations out of your control or when you encounter new regulations or adaptations to daily life. Figuring out how to react in new situations requires patience. Be gentle on yourself. The level of fear and uncertainty we are experiencing during this pandemic is extremely tiresome. We don’t know how permanent these new arrangements will be. But if we take each day at a time, breathe through small irritations and pause before reacting to sudden changes, this will get easier. 

Learning to cope when nothing seems normal is a tough assignment. We are all like new arrivals in a strange new place. While it is a tough assignment for our world, we will learn to cope, and we will adapt and find creative new ways forward for that is what we are good at doing. 

Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


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